Curators Part 2

Instinctively I am against the notion of literary curators. To my mind such individuals just have too much centrality of power. Even if our ‘indie’ sector were picked up and patronised by a go-ahead visionary, I would still feel uncomfortable.

In the Art World, the example of the Young British Artists were wholly buttressed by Charles Saatchi. Investor, patron and curator of the Saatchi Gallery where so much of the work ended up. Surely the roles of curator and patron ought to have some separation? Otherwise you are wholly reliant on whether the individual is a benign dictator or a tyrant. When you are as powerful as Saatchi, neither makes much difference.

In theatre, Kenneth Tynan was the pre-eminent critic and supporter of the exciting plays of the 1960s and yet did he not surrender any claim to neutrality by writing for and producing “Oh Calcutta”? At one stroke he is a stakeholder in the success of an individual production. My former experience of theatre literary managers was that most were themselves playwrights, who thereby guaranteed themselves productions of their own plays, while giving platforms to their playwright mates for their works. Not quite a close shop, or a guild of theatre writers, but not far short.

In literature, the agent-publisher nexus means that there seems to be few such leg-up networks in place. However, the you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours occurs within reviews. Many writers, partly for economic reasons, are also reviewers. They review their mates’ books among others. Publishers aren’t daft and seek out those personal contacts their writer has in order to try and target a favourable review. It has always been thus and I have no real opinion on the ethics of it. However, it’s when reviewers raise their heads to pontificate across the whole of literary trends, that their dual role as writer slants their view. This is when I have a problem with them being writers and critics. In Harpers Ben Marcus rebuts Jonathan Franzen for an assault on experimental fiction’s threat to all literature by alienating readers from the pleasure of reading. Franzen is a very important writer, a strategic writer who people sit up and take notice of what he says. So when he wields such clout to issue fatwas against certain types of literature, it makes me very uncomfortable that he should be such a mouthpiece for the reading world as a whole. He is naturally defending his corner of literature, but only by excluding others that do not fit in with his own vision. I don’t know what the answer to this is. Writers will always air views about literature and so they should. But if they are also seen as curators in some way, that is not healthy. I think the Americans call it a separation of powers.

~ by yearzerowriters on February 13, 2010.

5 Responses to “Curators Part 2”

  1. i hate the idea just as much as you.

    why do we need it though? because so many people are sheep and are afraid of thinking their own thoughts. awful.

    ~jenn

  2. We don’t need curators or gatekeepers. Librarians, maybe.

    In the capitalist system, the arts are a mess. That’s why we wind up with salable clone-alikes and retreads, instead of original and honest artwork.

  3. Hmm. We disagree on this, as you know, and it’s given me pause for thought to rea through this, ebcause I know I swim so much against received Indie wisdom. First up I think I mean something different by “curator” from some people, although your nuanced account touches on it – the champion/impresario/patron role.

    What Tynan did in the 60s, MacLaren did in the 70s, and Serota (more than Saatchi, surely?) did in the 90s, was to get, respectively, theatre, music, and art as cultural forms right slap in the public’s faces – they got people talking. And that’s my problem with the attach on the impresario – we need figures to get people talking about literature, to get people excited about books – we need someone to get the general public asking what Serota got us asking about art (and Eagleton did in the 80s/90s for students in regard to literature) – “yeah, but is it literature?”

    “Is it art?” was watercooler talk in the 90s. I know people don’t like a lot of the content of the art that was talked about – they find it vacuous. I happen to disagree (but that’s a whole other argument). But the fact the question was so widely asked has to be good for art. I DO think a shark/bed/portrait of Myra moment for literature would be a good thing – and I think that needs a combination of talent and championing of that talent.

    Back for more later🙂

    • “Yes, but Is it literature?” groan… (and I probably veer as close to such questions being asked of my work as any).

      Are you seriously citing Malcolm McLaren as a model? If all one wants to do is get coverage, then I’m sure an author merely has to successfully woo Katie price or John Terry. The content always gets left behind in such browbeating ‘debates’.

      I disagree with you that Serota was more key than Saatchi. Yes he was more accessible with quotes and opinions than the reclusive Saatchi, but without Saatchi’s patronage, there simply would have been no YBA.

      Any curator must surely be an out and out altruist, ie with no foot in the camp of writer, publisher, retailer. I suppose in a crass way, Richard & Judy were curators, only of course it was all done behind the scenes by their researchers and I have no idea how much payola was involved if any.

      I feel authors have to stand on their own two feet and it’s their job to get the public debating their books, be it by the content of the book itself, or by some other piece of public self-promotion they’ve undertaken that has captured the public imagination. Yes literature may have its back against the wall right now for all sorts of reasons, hence this fantasy of a knight in shining white armour to come save us all, but ultimately us footsoldier writers just have to write better, more relevant and engaging books.

      marc

      • I think I’m not 100% sold on the separation of powers you argue for – although you articulate a very persuasive case. I’ll have a think about a more articulate way of responding!
        Dan

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